Hockey: Tales from the Trough: IceHogs 2011-2012 season recap: Hutton, defensive scheme make difference

By Todd Reicher
Sports Columnist

The 2011-2012 season was a transitional and maturing season compared to the previous season. This year, Rockford had the lowest player turnover from any season, which led to hopes of continuing growth from returning players.

Coming into their second year on the team were Alec Richards, Brandon Pirri, Kyle Beach, Peter LeBlanc, Jeremy Morin, Ryan Stanton and Brian Connelly, to name a few, as well as newcomers Andrew Shaw and Jimmy Hayes.

As the team typically does, veterans Brett McLean, Brandon Segal and Brian Fahey were brought in to add a veteran presence and depth to a young IceHogs squad.

Rockford took their first big hit of the season only nine games into the campaign, losing Beach to a shoulder injury Oct. 29 against the Rivermen in Peoria.

In an April 4 interview conducted by Chicago Blackhawks reporter Brad Boron, Beach stated: “When it first happened, all I did was go to rehab for about two hours a day, then go home and sit on my couch. For a month before and after surgery, I couldn’t do any working out. They wouldn’t even let me ride the bike or walk on the treadmill.”

For the IceHogs, losing Beach for almost five months certainly put a damper on their hopes for a strong season, but for Beach, it was a time to give back to the community.

Mike Peck, vice president of communications for the IceHogs, mentioned to Beach that a house team for the Rockford Park District’s Junior IceHogs team needed a coach. Beach stepped in to assist one of the player’s parents in coaching duties, and helped steer the team to a successful 10-1-1 record.

Beach returned to the IceHogs’ lineup Friday, March 23, and tallied one assist on Rockford’s first goal of the game.

Ben Smith, who was poised to start the season with the Blackhawks, suffered a concussion in a preseason game against the Detroit Red Wings, and was assigned to Rockford. Smith would be transferred up and down from the Blackhawks to the IceHogs multiple times throughout the season, until March 8 when Smith had season-ending surgery to replace a labral tear on his right hip and a hernia. Despite only playing in 38 games for Rockford this season, Smitty finished the campaign with 15 goals and 16 assists.

Friday, Nov. 18, Rockford got a boost in the offensive department in the form of Chicago Blackhawks winger Rostislav Olesz. With their stacked offensive lineup in Chicago, Olesz didn’t quite fit into the mold, and his high-priced contract made him a candidate for a transfer to Rockford. Olesz made an immediate impact with the team tallying one goal, one assist and a shootout goal in his first game with Rockford.

Dec. 2 marked the end of another familiar face in Rockford. Forward Rob Klinkhammer, who was starting his fourth year with the IceHogs, was traded to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in the 2013 NHL draft. Klinkhammer ranks third all-time in games played for Rockford. In those games, Klinkhammer tallied 44 goals and 65 assists.

On the same day, IceHogs goaltender Alexander Salak was helped off the ice during a game at home against the Lake Erie Monsters. After a pileup at the Rockford net, Salak remained on the ice for a few minutes until Rockford trainers assisted him to the dressing room.

However, the injury to Salak led to one of the biggest, if not the biggest, success story of the year. Carter Hutton was brought up from the Toledo Walleye as a backup for Alec Richards. After a few weeks of up-and-down play from both goaltenders, Hutton wound up taking the starting job from Richards and almost single-handedly carried the IceHogs to a postseason berth. In his 43 games played this season, Hutton finished with a 22-13-4-3 record with a 2.35 goals against average and 0.917 save percentage, and two shutouts, as well as being named the AHL’s Player of the Week on two separate occasions, a first for any Rockford IceHogs player. In addition, Hutton was named Rockford’s MVP for the 2011-2012 season.

To make room for Salak’s return to the lineup, Richards was sent down to Toledo Feb. 5.

Friday, Jan. 27, the second game of a double-header in Charlotte, N.C., Connelly was a healthy scratch. When a player is a healthy scratch for a game, it usually means one of two things: the player is sitting in favor of another player, or that player is going to be traded. In Connelly’s case, it was the latter of the two, as Connelly was shipped to Abbotsford (Calgary’s AHL affiliate) in exchange for NHL’er Brendan Morrison.

The vet of the two players, Morrison was added to give the Blackhawks depth at the center position. In parts of four seasons with the IceHogs, Connelly holds the record for points and assists by an IceHogs defenseman with 105 assists, 126 points.

Along the way, Rockford would lose two of their veteran players in Brandon Segal and Brett McLean. Segal was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning (and assigned to their AHL affiliate Norfolk Admirals) in exchange for Matt Fornataro. McLean was shipped overseas to HC Lugano of the NLA league in Switzerland, joining former IceHogs and Chicago Blackhawks skater Jordan Hendry.

Throughout the year, the Blackhawks would call up (and send down) Shaw, Smith, Hayes, Pirri, Hutton and surprisingly Brandon Bollig. Many Blackhawks fans assumed Shaw would replace the injured Daniel Carcillo on the ’Hawks’ roster, but Shaw’s play earned him a slot in the top six for a few games, and Bollig was brought in for his gritty play. Bollig, Shaw and Hayes remained with the ’Hawks into the playoffs, where Bollig netted his first NHL goal.

What hurt Rockford, for the second season in a row, was a poor showing in the first two quarters of the season. Rockford’s first-half record was 14-20-1-3, putting them toward the bottom of the AHL. On the flipside, the second half of the season showed Rockford holding a 22-11-1-4 record, among the top of the league in the second half.

The big difference-maker was actually two things: the play of the aforementioned Hutton in goal, and Head Coach Ted Dent changing his defensive scheme.

Dent rearranged his forwards to have one forward stay in a defensive position through center ice to prevent odd-man rushes and opportunities from the opposition. The players adapted to the change, and the results showed on the ice and on the scoreboard. Rockford wasn’t scoring as much, but neither were their opponents.

Prior to the start of their last home game, Rockford announced their team awards. As previously mentioned, Hutton was named the team MVP. Pirri would win the award for leading scorer, amassing 23 goals and 32 assists for 55 points.

Stanton picked up the Top Defenseman award and finished his second season with 3 goals, 13 assists for 16 points and 128 penalty minutes.

The Rookie of the Year award went to Joe Lavin, who helped steady Rockford’s blueline, especially during the transition when Connelly was traded. Throughout the latter half of the season, Lavin was among two other rookies, two second-year players and one veteran player steadying Rockford’s defensive corps.

Peter LeBlanc, who doubled his goal total from last year, his rookie year, received the Unsung Hero Award. LeBlanc finished with 24 goals and 20 assists for 44 points, which topped his rookie totals of 12G-18A for 30 points. LeBlanc also received a one-year contract from the Chicago Blackhawks for the 2012-2013 season April 13.

Rookie Philippe Paradis was named the Heavy Hitter for the season, taking over for Shaw. Although Paradis sat for portions of the middle of the season, he showed why he needed to be in the lineup with his hard-hitting, agitating style in the end of the season.

Although Smith was sidelined for a portion of the season, it didn’t stop him from winning the Man of the Year Award. Smith’s commitments, as well as leadership to the Rockford community, made him the perfect candidate for the award.

Looking forward:

Next week, I’ll have an interview with Mike Peck, vice president of communications and voice of the IceHogs. We’ll discuss the high and low points of this past season, some of our highlights, potential roster changes for 2012-2013 and more.

From the April 25-May 1, 2012, issue

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